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Senate Democrats Fear New START Treaty Could 'Blow Up'


Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley says that the Trump administration has not yet engaged in "serious negotiations" with China about its potential participation in the New START treaty. (file photo)
Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley says that the Trump administration has not yet engaged in "serious negotiations" with China about its potential participation in the New START treaty. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats warned that failing to extend the last remaining nuclear-arms treaty with Russia would hurt U.S. national security and lead to an arms race that could widen the already large federal deficit.

The Trump administration has said it wants an extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) -- which is set to expire in February 2021 -- to include China. The United States and Russia are the two signatories of the New START treaty that went into effect in 2011.

China, the third-largest nuclear power, is on track to double its nuclear arsenal over the next decade, Christopher Ford, assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on December 2. However, China’s arsenal would still be less than half of that of the United States and Russia.

Senator Edward Markey (Democrat-Massachusetts) said the United States is unlikely to reach an agreement with China by the time the treaty expires, running the risk of its collapse.

“My concern -- amongst other things -- is that if we mishandle this, we could wind up with a new nuclear-arms race that could unnecessarily cost us trillions of dollars because we missed the opportunity to have a negotiated resolution of the issue first with the Russians,” Markey said.

New START limits deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs held by the United States and Russia to 1,550, a reduction of nearly 75 percent from the 6,000 cap set by START 1, according to the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based, nongovernmental organization.

The treaty also allows for verification of warheads held by each side, something Markey called “a huge breakthrough” for nonproliferation.

Senator Jeff Merkley (Democrat-Oregon) complained that the Trump administration has not yet engaged in “serious negotiations” with China about its participation in the treaty.

China currently has 300 nuclear warheads and its program is in an infant stage of development compared to the United States and Russia, he said.

Talks with Beijing could take “many, many years” because of the “huge disparity” between the arsenals of the United States and Russia on the one hand and China on the other, he said.

“What we don’t want to see is China used as an excuse to blow up the existing or potential extension of an agreement with Russia that contributes to international security,” he added.

China has made it “quite clear” that it won’t participate in talks to limit its nuclear arsenal, Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, told RFE/RL.

New Russian Weapons

The Trump administration has also expressed concern about extending New START beyond 2021 considering Russian efforts to develop new nuclear systems that are not covered by the treaty.

Russia is currently developing the Sarmat, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as the Avangard, a hypersonic missile system. Both could be ready for deployment by 2020 and 2021, respectively, said Reif.

The Kremlin is also seeking to build a nuclear-powered underwater drone and a nuclear-powered cruise missile that would not be ready until the latter half of the next decade.

The United States has no equivalent to Russia’s four new weapon delivery systems, Ford said.

However, Russia has agreed to include limitations on Sarmat and Avangard weapons under a five-year extension of New START, said Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey). The Kremlin might be willing to include its other new weapon systems even though they may not be ready during the extension period.

"If you don’t explore in a negotiation what is willing to be covered, then I don’t think you can dismiss it out of hand,” Menendez said.

“Suggesting that Russian systems are a reason not to continue New START is also alarming when we have seen that they have agreed to two and might agree to others.”

Senator Chris Van Holland (Democrat-Maryland) and Todd Young (Republican-Indiana) have co-sponsored a bill to extend New START.

New START is now the last remaining nuclear-arms agreement between Russia and the United States after Washington withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August amid accusations Russia developed a weapon banned by the agreement.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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